The Political Management of Multiculturalism
By Marta Castillo Ramos with photos by Aníbal Martel Peña
About one out of every ten Hispanics in the Boston metropolitan area is Salvadoran, according to the 2010 American Community Survey. Yet little is known on the outside about this community, just occasional references to an extraordinary restaurant that sells the Salvadoran pancakes known as pupusas or the sadder headlines about local gang activity with its origins in El Salvador.
Historically, Salvadorans arrived in the United States fleeing the civil war (1980-1992). Many others were forced to leave after the ravages of the strong earthquake in 2014. Nowadays, many of them leave their homes to avoid the violence or poverty. We decided to go beyond the statistics to interview Salvadorans about their lives.
Rolando Oliva, 59, came nine years ago to New Bedford, a port city south of Boston, from the small city of Santa Ana. He spent nearly a year without a job; for the time being, he works in a bakery while looking for a more stable job—one of those immigrants who has had to adapt to the postindustrial labor market in New England. “Unfortunately, during the recession year, there were no jobs anymore. Those offices (of employment), full of people and after a whole day waiting there… nothing.”
Once he got a job, Oliva said he also faced discrimination at his work site, and learned that companies dispose of immigrants in irregular situations, using their vulnerability to exploit workers even more, if possible. In Rolando’s words, yelling and humiliating people is a norm in many jobs. However, Oliva chose to fight back by participating in workers’ networks, giving support and advice to anyone who needs it.
Another Salvadoran, Ana Marina Vaquerano, 56, who met us in a Colombian eatery in East Boston, talks passionately of her struggle for social justice. Like so many others, she crossed the border with a coyote (a migrant trafficker), escaping the war. Arriving alone and undocumented, she later managed through solidarity networks to obtain legal and social support, originally settling in San Francisco. She has been in Boston now for thirteeen years, mostly working in the social work field, but she does not feel completely integrated into the city. Like Oliva, Vaquerano considers that discrimination is a reality in Massachusetts, especially for those people who are not fluent in English. She believes this happens because “they don’t give any importance to someone that doesn’t belong to this country. To someone that they know that can’t even defend themselves at a minimum.” Vaquerano notes, “Salvadorans are a hard-working community. They are a determined people, and despite any situation they face, they continue to move forward.”
Our third interviewee, Erika Yanira Arevalo, the Salvadoran vice-consul, received us with her family in their apartment in East Boston. She says she loves living in East Boston, her little piece of El Salvador in the state capital. Arevalo, 34, was a bit busy during the morning, since that day 37 members of a gang had been arrested throughout Greater Boston, including in East Boston. Arevalo thinks Salvadoran people are unfairly stigmatized as violent, but they are not the only ones: she believes that this stigma affects several Latino American communities. To her, it is not enough to identify the stigma; Salvadoran people have to confront this prejudice:
(…) “Unfortunately, there are complicated processes going on in the framework of the electoral year. In general, I think we are living a hard process as Latin Americans and we are stigmatized in different ways. It is also our duty to demonstrate that it is not like this and that many people in this country have different roles, not only in the kitchen, not only cleaning but also, in companies, universities, schools... We are in other spaces and we are doing big things for this country as well.”
Arevalo is positive regarding the situation in El Salvador. In her opinion, the campaigns of her government are helping people to invest remittances in education and other areas of development.
It is no coincidence that our interviews were in New Bedford and East Boston. If we analyze the urban space of Boston, New England’s most important city, we find a city with a high urban spatial segregation, which means that separate groups of population live inside a bigger one. In this case, this separation is established by the ethnic and cultural origin of the population. Thus, every group is socialized in a different environment, promoting the reproduction of certain patterns, which generates an identity that perpetuates social stratum. Identifying prejudice barriers is not enough; it is necessary to take an active part to seek integration between the various cultures coexisting in New England. The task of many organizations such as Centro Presente or Chelsea Collaborative is fundamental to build multicultural communities that live together harmoniously. Only by following this path will future generations avoid dealing with stereotypes.
Marta Castillo Ramos is a Catalan sociologist, with an M.A. in European Labor and Social Policies. She is involved in social movements and has worked in the fields of poverty, social and gender exclusion. She currently works in Boston with the Latin American community.
Aníbal Martel Peña has developed his professional career as an independent photographer in various capacities: print media, digital media and press agencies. He is currently working as a correspondent and editorial photographer. www.anibalmartel.com